“Few men have been as important in the intellectual renaissance of American conservatism as Richard M. Weaver.” After the North Carolinian’s premature death in 1963, these words appeared in an issue of a student publication, New Individualist Review.
Using a milder tone, the esteemed conservative thinker Russell Kirk remarked in National Review that Weaver’s “Ideas Have Consequences” (1948) was “one of the first works in the revival of conservatism in America.”
While in graduate school, I had heard about Weaver. In one class, readings included Murray Rothbard’s “Panic of 1819” and Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind.” Weaver was not on the readings list, though. Even so, I wanted to learn more about the former NC State instructor who later taught at the University of Chicago.
That summer, I took my recently purchased copy of “Ideas Have Consequences” with me on vacation to the beach. After reading the first chapter, and rereading a few paragraphs to ensure that I understood Weaver’s thoughts, I determined that the slim volume’s dense and multilayered content was not a “beach read.” I decided my leisure time should be spent reading something else.
As I put the book away, I recalled the opening remarks: “There is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot.” Anyway, I’d read the University of Chicago publication when I had a chance. And I did.
The University of Chicago Press wanted to replicate its successful publication of Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” (1944). The press director planned for a large initial press run and a big budget promotional effort. He had also secured the endorsements of the likes of not only Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, but also Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate.
A couple years prior to publication, the idea for Weaver’s book generated discussions with William Terry Couch, the director of University of North Carolina Press, who later became the director of the University of Chicago Press. Weaver wanted to publish his dissertation, but Couch later rejected the idea because the dissertation had a limited, regional focus. In the editor’s view, Weaver needed to apply his conclusions broadly to the modern world. Weaver did so.
The process of choosing a title, however, caused a row between Couch and Weaver. Initially, Weaver titled his work “Steps Toward the Restoration of Our World.” It was later changed to “The Adverse Descent.” Couch, however, insisted on “Ideas Have Consequences,” and Weaver thought about going elsewhere with his manuscript rather than be associated with what he deemed a boring title. He eventually stayed with the University of Chicago Press.
The book had initial, lackluster sales. Advertising was prevalent, but reviews were unsurprisingly mixed. Even though Weaver worried that negative reviews might affect his career, the university offered him a contract and promoted him to assistant professor. He then became even more prolific.
He wrote for numerous journals, including “Sewanee Review” and “Hopkins Review.” He wrote “Elements of English Grammar,” “Visions of Order” and “The Ethics of Rhetoric.” He indeed was a rhetorician. His articles such as “Responsible Rhetoric” and “Language is Sermonic” are thought provoking. He philosophized regarding politics, too, in essays such as “How to Argue the Conservative Cause.” Weaver disagreed with those who focus all their attention on the “waverers, the fence straddlers, or the ones who have not yet made up their mind.” In messaging, Weaver did not want to “dilute the dose for the queasy stomach.”
Although a prolific writer, he feared that what he considered a banal phrase — “ideas have consequences” — would be forever linked with his name. He was prophetic, and his ideas influenced generations.